Early season whispers about Christian Ballard's bad hands went unheard because of Free State High's high-decibel football start.
Ballard was considered an all-state caliber tight end because of his size (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) and speed (4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash), yet Ballard caught only six passes in the Firebirds' first seven games and was guilty of a handful of drops.
Ballard won't make excuses for his difficulties catching the football.
"I wasn't really focused. I was inconsistent, to say the least," he said, "but as the season has gone by, the drops have gone down."
Ballard neglected to mention another factor - an injury.
"He had a sprained thumb that nobody knew about," coach Bob Lisher said.
Ballard, his thumb now healed, has caught 10 passes in the last four games and looms as a viable offensive option in tonight's Class 6A state semifinal against Shawnee Mission West.
Kickoff will be at 7 p.m. at SM South District Stadium. Sunflower Broadband Channel 6 will carry a delayed telecast at 10:30 p.m.
Free State figures to need all the offense it can muster against SM West, the stingiest defensive team in the Sunflower League, and that's where Ballard comes in.
Although solid all fall at defensive end - he returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown in last week's quarterfinal victory over Olathe East - Ballard has caught only one TD pass in the Firebirds' 11 games.
Thus he could be the X-factor in tonight's showdown that will determine the eastern representative in the Class 6A state title game Nov. 25 at Welch Stadium in Emporia.
"X-factor? Maybe, maybe not," Ballard said. "All I know is we've never beaten them in my career. That gives us a little more emotion, a little more fight."
SM West thumped the Firebirds, 52-7, during the 2005 regular season, then ended Free State's year with a 40-18 romp in the first round of the '05 playoffs.
A year earlier, the scores were different but the results the same. SM West pinned Free State, 35-14, during the 2004 regular season, then recorded a 26-20 overtime decision in the first round of the playoffs.
"My brother (Casey) was a senior on that team," Ballard said, "and we were really bummed after that one."
Ballard made an early oral commitment to attend Kansas University on a football scholarship, then changed his mind about a month ago and now says he will sign with Iowa University instead.
"I would like to play tight end in college," Ballard said, "but I can see myself playing defense, or as an offensive lineman."
Regardless of his future as a collegian or even the outcome of tonight's game, Ballard has been a contributor to the best football season in Free State history.
"He's had a very good senior year," Lisher said. "We're awfully thankful for the job he's done at defensive end, and his blocking at tight end has been good, too."
Notes: Free State fans will sit on the east side of SM South Stadium. Tickets are $5 for adults and $4 for students. :Free State has no significant injuries, according to Lisher. : Firebirds' quarterback Ryan Murphy needs 27 rushing yards to reach 1,000. Murphy has already passed for more than 1,600 yards.